LAST Sunday week’s cranky, subdued atmosphere at Lansdowne Road has generated a lot of discussion.
Is it down to the new stadium? Too comfortable say some; not comfortable enough according to others, with plenty of seats giving the punter a pretty shabby view of the match. But the stadium isn’t inherently problematic, and has generated a raucous atmosphere on certain occasions: Leinster v Toulouse, and the corresponding fixture two years ago spring to mind.
So just why was the atmosphere so awful, and what can be done about it? Is it down to the new breed of rugby fan? Probably not, since that fan doesn’t usually get a ticket for the Six Nations. The tickets still get distributed through the clubs, and end up mostly in the same hands as they always did. Sure, there are a higher number of match-goers on corporate jollies, but rugby has always had a middle-class support, and we’re not convinced the demographic would be that different to what it was in the grand old days of the rickety old Lansdowne.
Alan Quinlan said that the atmosphere for an Ireland v England game should be heaving. He’s right, it’s a big game in the calendar, but maybe not as big as it once was. Is an Ireland v England rugby match as unique as it used to be?
Time was the Six Nations was the only time rugby went “big” in the calendar year. The rest of the season was taken up by the unglamorous club game, which was played out in front of small crowds around the country. Not anymore.
Now there are as many as ten rugby weekends before the Six Nations even kicks off; six Heineken Cup rounds (some involving the same English players who you only used to see in white), three to four November internationals, and the big interpros. There’s plenty of choice for fans who want to attend a rugby match, most of them are cheaper than Ireland v England, and the likes of Clermont are much more fun to watch than any international side.
To compound matters, the sense of devotion to Team Ireland has also waned in recent years, as the fans have splintered into increasingly cantankerous factions, built along provincial divides.
The atmosphere around the national team can be poisonous if Ireland lose. Everyone has a case for complaint. Ulster fans rage that while their team is resurgent, their players consistently miss out on close selection calls. Leinster fans feel the brand of rugby played by Ireland pales beside that which Joe Schmidt has brought to their province and sense frustration from their players with inferior coaching and tactics at national team level. Munster fans tend to feel the brunt of “Drop X, he’s past it” comments, X generally being one of the Munster-backboned grand-slam winning side.
The result is a lack of ownership of the Irish team. Flick through the pages of the provincial fansites, or the comments section of our own blog, and you’ll find fans who will fight hard to defend their own province from the brickbats of rival provinces’ fans. But the Ireland team? Everyone’s happy to dump on them, through the convenient vehicle of the easy scapegoats.
The question is, has the IRFU done enough to rectify what’s becoming an obvious issue? Increasingly, it looks like an organisation that doesn’t know what to do with the provinces. When they designed/stumbled upon the professional structure of Irish rugby, it was to create a sort of pyramid: at the top of which would sit Team Ireland, with the provinces the next rung down; entities in and of themselves, but ultimately feeders to the national side. It was envisaged as New Zealandesque, where the national coaches would share thoughts on tactics and selection, which would naturally filter through to the lower level.
It was never meant to be the case that the provinces would become more fun and exciting for Irish rugby fans – but it has come to pass. So far, though, the IRFU’s responses to this have indicated they see the provinces as a sort of threat to the system, as opposed to recognising that the block at the top of the pyramid needs to up its game. The horrendously received player succession rules – which, incidentally, appear shrouded in doubt in light of recent contract awards – showcased a Union seemingly intent on bringing the provinces down a peg or two.
There’s been no shortage of talk from head office of the primacy of the test team this season, with the players taken out of their provinces for additional training camps in Carton House, and much comparative talk of what goes on in Wales (though that would be a model which nobody should see as ideal). It’s as if the IRFU see there as being a fixed amount of good rugby performances available, and that those can be transferred wholesale from the provinces to Ireland.
On top of this, there’s still a sense of resentment among fans over the ticket cost issue for the launch of the new stadium, in which outrageously priced tickets went unsold as the country reeled in the peak of recession. It led to a stillborn arrival for the shiny new ground, and it’s still yet to really feel like a home.
The IRFU haven’t done enough to make fans feel like they’re getting value for money. This, again, runs in stark contrast to the provinces, where huge efforts are made to add little extras – half-time minis, family days, “legendary” player t-shirt launches – that fans enjoy and appreciate. For example, premium tickets for Ulster-Embra complete with Twickers-HEC final half-time show cost the same as vertigo-inducing corner seats for this year’s Bok game with “MAKE SOME NOISE” tannoy and the Dropkick Murphys at half-time – stark comparison.
Immediate solutions aren’t obvious, but it looks increasingly likely that the IRFU will try and generate some goodwill to the national team by appointing a new coach this summer. Most fans are crying out for a coach who can turn the team into one the whole nation can rally behind.
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